What I spent my day doing

I was off from work today. But I had A Plan for today. If you get upset when people talk about money, you should stop reading now.

I spent the day managing our money. If you think about how much time we spend earning or money versus how much time we spend taking care of our money… well, on the former it’s usually at least 40 hours a week. On the latter, if you don’t count paying bills, it’s probably less than an hour a month.

When all was said and done, my husband owes me dinner because we had met my financial goals for the year — goals which I had set at about this time last year.

So why do you care? You probably don’t care about what I’m doing, honestly, but I want to put a call out to remind you to spent some time at the end of the year doing some financial housekeeping. Financial education sucks in our country. Do you know how much your parents make? Whether they owe any money? What their retirement account balances are? If your parents weren’t teaching you by example how to deal with finances, how did you learn? Or did you ever learn? Our society doesn’t really teach you the stuff you should know to stay out of debt and build up savings. And we have this huge tabboo about talking about it. Many people don’t get any real education at all. And so here are Oriana’s year end tips for a better fiscal 2005:

1) Know your status. Find out a way to answer the following questions:

*How much do you owe, in total?
*How much do you have saved, in total?
*How much do your basics cost every month? (Rent, food, gas, heat, insurance, car payments)
*How much do you earn every month?
*Assuming you earn more than you need to live, what do you do with that money? (If the answer is “I don’t know”, keep track for a month or two. Credit card statements can be a real help if you use plastic regularly.)
*Assuming you earn less than you need, that’s not sustainable, obviously. What are your plans to change that? Are you going to cut costs, increase your income, or both? (You get a bye on this one if you’re still in school.)

2) Never, ever let your credit suffer because of a cash-flow issue.
You know the story. Your bills are due the same day every month. You have an unexpected expense. Or one of your payments gets lost in the mail. A check gets misplaced by the bank. It takes longer to clear than you expect. There are a hundred gazillion ways this can happen — many of which you have no control over. If the bank messes up your deposit, it doesn’t affect them at all. If you miss a bill payment, though, it can negatively affect your credit score — your ability to buy a house, a car, get a credit card, get a job — for 7 years.

So here’s what you should do:

Everyone: Build a financial savings cushion. Put a little aside every month — you can have amounts auto-debited by most banks, so you never even notice it. If you do not have enough money to put $10, $20 or $50 aside every month, you need to evaluate either your costs or your income.

People with good credit: Assuming you haven’t quite saved enough to cover yourself in case of a shortfall, a credit card and/or line of credit on your checking account is a good temporary measure. I particularly like the line of credit offered on the “bottom” of a checking account. Basically, you have a credit line on your checking account — say $1000 at 12.9%. If you have a balance of $100 and you write a check that clears for $120, you borrow $20 at that credit amount. When your $200 check hits, you pay back that $20 first, so you have a balance of $180. It’s way, way cheaper than bounced check fees, and tremendously convenient. Most banks have this service, although few advertise it. If you’re doing the credit card route, save a few of the checks they constantly send you to cover any cash-flow gap that comes up. But be sure you pay it off when that check DOES clear.

People with bad credit: You’re like, “Yeah right. Works for people with great credit, but that’s not me.” Don’t be embarrassed. Lots and lots of people have pretty crappy credit right now. There are a few options you have to cover cash-flow issues.

1) Save enough of a cushion. “They” say you should have 6 months worth of cash on hand. I’d love to know what fantasy world “they” live in. I suggest, though, that even if it takes sacrifices, if you’re making enough, you should try to have at least one paycheck on hand, in case something bad happens.
2) Grit your teeth and sign up for one of those high credit cards. I hesitate to suggest this if credit cards were what got you into trouble in the first place, but assuming you can keep yourself from buying those snazzy shoes just because you have credit, these can really get you out of a tight spot. You do not have credit that is too bad. I swear, these guys would lend to Enron. The key here is that you HAVE TO PAY IT OFF every time it comes due. This isn’t a way to get extra money, it’s a way to make sure that the timing of the money you have doesn’t screw you. Here’s a link to some credit cards that are offered to people with bad credit. The best part of this is that if you use this only as I describe, you’ll actually start rebuilding your credit.

3) If you have a balance on your credit card, pay off more each month than you charge each month.
Um, that’s it.

4) If you are not in debt, or have only “good” debt (mortgages, low interest car loans, student loans), save money. You should first focus on having that cushion I spoke about. Once you’re comfortable you could weather a missed check or two, start saving in a retirement plan. 401Ks are best, but IRAs have lots of good options. That’s a bigger discussion than I feel like having right now.

5) So far I’ve failed to address the really big issue.
What happens if it simply costs you more to live than you earn? I think there are a lot of people in that situation. There are only two sustainable options.

a) Earn more. Get a better paying job. Or a second job. Or maybe your SO needs to earn more. This can suck, especially if you’re in a low-paying job you really like. But I think there are some of you out there who are in low-paying jobs you don’t need to be in — you’re more talented and capable than that. You’re just hooked on the security of your current job. Obviously, that’s not universally true. That’s just true of many of my friends.

b) Spend less. The diet method. Do you need cable or a cell phone? Can you get a roommate? Do you need a car? How much would cooking at home save you? Do you buy clothes you don’t actually need?

c) There are people who are just trapped in this. There are people who, through no fault of their own just can’t cover that gap. If that describes you, consider whether you’d rather be getting further into a hole just living, or whether you could go to college or learn a trade, so that while you’re getting into a hole now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get out. But it’s a sickness of our world that so many who work so hard do not earn enough to live a decent life.

On the next “Brenda Pontificates”… the importance of disability insurance to younger workers

Vienna and Venice

I always find it rather overwhelming to contemplate writing complete updates of exciting adventures, especially when they’re 10 days in length. I mean, I wax on for the equivalent of two pages on a relatively boring weekend. What will my tally then be for an exciting 10 days? So then I put it off… and before you know it, I never did give you an update. So instead, I try to be concise. Clear. To the point. Shan’t use a word more than necessary. I shall be the soul of brevity, giving you only so much information (as is dictated by my wisdom and experience as an English major graduated from the august educational institution that is Connecticut College) as I consider to be elucidating and interesting, and critical to the story of our adventures, or, as they may be called, misadventures. I shall take no tangents, and my clauses (if I have any) shall be short and unparenthetical. Indeed, when I am done with this update, you shall all be comparing the sparseness of my prose to that of Hemingway, or others of the great sparse authors. Every sentence, every word, every syllable shall be key to the telling of the tale, and well-considered before being allowed entry into my tally.

Aw hell. Or maybe I’ll just use bullet points.

The journey in
We left work. We cleaned house. We finished packing. We took a taxi to the airport. We boarded our plane. The horrors! Seats! They were in the middle! Would sleep be ours? We feared.

Indeed, worst fears were realized. Sleep came but slowly. When at last it settled upon leaden lids, true tragedy struck. A woman in front of us had a heart attack, just over the point of no return. Doctors worked furiously for over an hour. She departed — we are told with good chance of recovery — when we landed in Shannon, Ireland.

We missed our connections. We slept not. We did not arrive in Vienna until 8 hours after our intentions. We were not met at the airport as promised.

The first encounters of Vienna.
Weary, we sought sustenance of the Austrian sort. Guided by hotel clerk, we went to the Cafe Wiemar. Write that down, friends, for if ever you find yourself in Vienna, it should be your first stop. Had hungarian goulash soup and wiener schnitzel. Had to bodily prevent husband from proposing to waiter who brought him hungarian goulash.

The time before the three Hacken struck
Our first full day, saw many dead bodies. Went to the imperial crypts. Saw increasingly ornate coffins of kaisers. Went to St. Stephens — creepiest cathedral in the known world, where even the statues frown menacingly down upon you. Went to catacombs below St. Stephens. Somewhat surprised that they seemed friendlier than the church. Saw really creepy pit where plague victims were indiscriminantly thrown, ossuaries, and rooms simply stacked with bones.

Then saw Roman ruins under the city.

Encountered that which is known as “creme schnitte”. Life will never be the same again, nor would I have it be. Made conversation with two short gay Jewish guys from New York.

Went back to room to dress in finery. Looked great. Shoes a tragic mistake. Like Cinderalla’s, they kept slipping off. Had tapfenspitz for dinner. Quite good. Gamers will come to know well in future days. Went to opera. Husband nearly killed me for picking such unpractical shoes. Opera quite as fantastic as hoped. Seats were amazing. There were even supertitles, to our everlasting relief. Came to the quick conclusion that the heroine of “The Flying Dutchman” a complete nutcase. Opera proceeded to last another 4 hours. After opera conclusion, had famous chocolate after-opera cake. Didn’t like it as well as creme schnitte, but ok.

Next day fewer dead bodies. More instruments of killing. Spent morning looking at the collection of arms and armour at the imperial palace, followed by the early instrument collection. Bought a toy morningstar in gift shop — plush. Bashed husband with it, playfully.

Went to Cafe Wiemar for fortification with Hungarian Goulash Soup. Husband spent time making up odes to it. Bought me some jewelry when thus softened by its paprika-y goodness. Went back to hotel to meet old college friend, “The Overlord of the Balkans” (TOOTB) — Mr. Hackett.

The strike of the Three Hacken
After feeding with the fine hungarian goulash of Cafe Wiemar, took Tootb to downtown Vienna where a run-in was had with Die BackenMeister. Boys barely dissuaded from trying to break into catacombs — probably by lack of liquid fortification. Using Tootb’s unerring sense, we located a bar called “Das Three Hacken”. Took this as a sign. Went in. Ordered three beers known as Edelweiss.

Having completed quota, proceeded to another bar. Ordered another Edelweiss. Came to the stunning and urgent conclusion that there were Irish songs that needed singing. Stopped a man on a street to ask way to nearest Irish pub. Happened to be (we think?) Irishman. Demanded to know the recipient of our votes before helping him. From directions given, unsure whether he was a democrat or republican. Eventually found bar anyway. Sang Irish songs loudly and badly, fortified by additional application of Guinness.

Came to realization we were too drunk to stumble home. Wisely ordered cab.

Tootb left following morning early, a stronger man than we. We slept until noon.

Further adventures in Austria
Upon waking, we went to medieval art museum at Belvedere. Then to a palace with labrynth and beautiful building high on hill called “Gloriana”. Watched sun set over good Austrian coffee in the Gloriana. Glorious. Went back to Cafe Wiemar for further application of Hungarian Goulash.

Managed to figure out how to rent a car, and do so. A Smart car. Breathing sighs of great gratitude that at least we already knew how to drive a standard, departed parking garage. Realized 10 minutes later that following signs for “Einbahn” with arrows was unlikely to lead to freeway since Einbahn means one way. Administered dope slaps, and got on freeway. Drove past spectacular scenery to city of Graz. Where parking costs more than even in Boston. Went to cool armory. Saw thousands upon thousands of bladed weapons, armor and early guns. (Matchlock!) Actually got to see a real, live, true version of exactly what I imagine my character’s weapons to be. Had argument with husband who insisted it is a flail. Told him I knew my own weapon when I saw it. Bought little copy of morningstar/flail in giftshop, along with roughly 4000 other books. Attempted to get to ancient Roman ruins, but were thwarted by the only mean Austrians to be encountered the entire journey. Returned weary to Vienna.

Next day, having concluded that if I did not take my husband to the Papyrus Museum I would hear about it for the rest of my natural life, we began with a quick trip to the Voltskirk (a favorite), and the Papyrus Musum. Itch scratched. Got back into car and begin to drive to Alps. Absolutely gorgeous. Babbling streams. Ruined castles. Bucolic fields. Turning leaves. High fabulous mountains. Hairpin turns. Fun driving. Got husband swiss hat. High point of entire vacation. Happily, only day of good weather in Austria was most important.

The journey to Venice
Took train to Venice. Many stops along the way. Spotted many exciting castle ruins. Need to go back to investigate. Wonder if next week would be too soon. Came up with corrolary, “In the dark, everything’s a castle!”. Alps beautiful, but train mostly went under, not through. Landscape suddenly flattened — suddenly Roman aquaducts make sense. Arrived in Venice late and carried luggate roughly 30 miles in search of hotel. Venice much more difficult to navigate than Vienna. Many bridges to go up and down. Found eventually, and collapsed.

The city of bad street signs
Next morning, went out to see St. Marks. Noticed high water in canals. Got to St. Marks square. Entire thing under 2 feet of water. Got onto duck walk. Ended up in Doge’s palace instead of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Saw many more ways of killing people (another armory) and far more roccoco baroque works with little cherubs than already weakened constitutions can handle. Fled from crowds and confusion in square. Noticed the impossibility of going and returning the same way in Venice. Resolved to return after dinner.

Had fine dinner, cost of which might have fed entire sub-Saharan Africa. Returned hopefully to St. Marks cathedral, having been assured that St. Marks was always open. After 2 miles of walking, found it closed. Sat looking longingly at it. Returned defeated to hotel.

Next morning, arose bound and determined to see St. Marks regardless. Square only full of 1 foot of water upon arrival. Managed to get in, hear some of mass sung in latin, see some works. Saw only reference entire trip to pifarri — a high, out-of-the-way drawing showed them. No other Venetians seemed to ever have heard of them. Finally, got to get into St. Marks. As glorious, golden and delightful as imagined. Maybe more. Took fill of mosaics. Spent nearly 4 hours. Finally emerged hungry but satisfied.

The closing of the chapter
Returned by yet another route to hotel and spent remainder of night reading Wodehouse in bathtub. Would recommend reading “Picadilly Jim”. Packed.

Awoke at 3 am. Went to airport before it opened. Went to Amsterdam. Had darn good nap on floor. Flew home. Arrived to find cats safe, and Red Sox still in it.

Philosophical reflections
Find self refreshed, renewed and restored — not only by the vacation, but by 10 days thinking of other things. Energy and spirits are high. Not even dreading winter with usual vigor. The holiday was well-conceived, and was wonderful. Wish all of you could have same.

Connect the Dots Part II

I should mention that after doing this graduation trip with me, my grandfather and godfather (who were best friends for like 50 years) decided travel wasn’t so hard after all, and went to Scotland together. For a month.

My grandfather died about a year ago, but in the last 3 years of his life, he did something he always wanted to do with his best friend.

And I still miss him.

Sunday School Curriculum — the mission statement

Mission statements, when done by big corporations and imposed on others, are generally laughable. I mean, really, either they state the obvious about what you’re about, or they’re hypocritical about what you’re about. I’m sure they’re more useful than that, but despite having been part of a mission statement writing process, I’m not too into them.

On the other hand, when *I* personally set out to do something, I often need a mission statement. Which is another way of saying, “Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to accomplish? What would a successful outcome be for me?” A mission statement is the answer.

So here is my mission statement for my youth group/Sunday School.

The purpose of this Sunday School class is:

  • To teach our youth about God’s presence in this world and in our lives.
  • To show the youth ways that God’s presence directs and informs our understanding of the world.
  • To encourage a daily living out of whatever beliefs our youth hold.
  • To give a cultural and historical understanding of Christianity, in context to other religions and to current events.
  • To create young adults with enough curiosity to want to ask the great questions of faith, enough knowledge to know where to begin asking, and enough courage to confront these questions head-on and change the way they live their lives because of the answers they find.

    So that’s what I’m headed for, in 45 easy lessons. Wish me luck, friends.

  • Contentment is…

    I’m sitting at home right now, listening to Kate Rusby. I am wearing my kitty cat pajamas (the non glow-in-the-dark set). I have a peach candle my husband gave me for Christmas burning on my desk. The snowflakes are falling thick and fast outside. I have a cup of coffee in front of me.

    The only way it could be better was if my husband was at home to enjoy it with me.

    I love being able to telecommute.

    What I learned from Medieval Studies

    In some ways, learning about the middle ages was as much anthropology as history. (I suppose most history has an anthropological aspect.) I mean, there are historical facts and pieces of literature, but in some ways, I found attitudes and beliefs more interesting. My thesis was basically on medieval literary *attitudes* towards music. It wasn’t what they believed was true about music, it wasn’t about what music actually did in that period, it was about how people writing literature were likely to portray music in that literature.

    This is a long introduction to one of the things I learned which blew me away when I realized it. With, I’m sure, many exceptions, people living in the Middle Ages did not anticipate that the world was going to change!!! Consider: 1) A medieval painting of King David — dressed in medieval garb with a medieval lyre and medieval-looking courtiers. 2) Rent declared in perpetuity that is not adjusted for inflation. Can you even imagine telling someone they and their children can rent an apartment from you and your heirs forever and ever for $1200? No! We’d never let it go that long, and if for some reason we did, we’d figure out a way to make sure it at very least moved with inflation. Unless we didn’t care about losing money. There are other examples. I’m sure there are counter examples of people who anticipated change. But I think they were also less likely to perceive change as progress. The Vandals sacking Rome was change, but it wasn’t progress. The black death was at some point new, but it wasn’t progress. Rising illiteracy in the beginning of the middle ages was a change, but it wasn’t progress.

    Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a culture where change was not expected? (I’m sure this was true of other cultures — China comes to mind.) For all every generation feels like the one that is following it is going to hell, can you imagine a world where you actually anticipated depopulation, diminishing technology and deflation? What would change about *you* if you were a believing part of a culture who thought that the world was always going to be like it is today?

    Of course that brings up eschatology, and the belief that the world wouldn’t change, it would simply end. We’re more likely to believe that if we don’t change, the world will end.